Dozens attend learning session to gauge regenerative farming interest
PITTSTOWN — A mix of organic and conventional farmers, breeders of livestock, cheese makers, rookie farmers and seasoned veterans gathered at Beneduce Vineyards here on a Thursday evening to talk about regenerative farming.
North Jersey Resource Conservation and Development received a federal grant of $239,600 through a Conservation Outreach: Equity through Cooperative Agreements program to form a Regenerative Farming Network.
The event at Beneduce on Dec. 1 was a kickoff meeting to bring together interested farmers and representatives of agriculture organizations.
About 60 attended to ask questions about what regenerative farming would mean to them.
They represented farms from a quarter-acre in size to 1,200 acres.
Regenerative Agriculture is defined as a holistic approach to agriculture that focuses on the interconnection of farming systems and ecological systems as a whole. It is an approach often used by indigenous communities.
The six core principles of regenerative agriculture were listed on an RC&D handout: understand the context of your farm operation, minimize soil disturbance, maximize crop diversity, keep the soil covered, maintain living root year-round, and integrate livestock.
According to a statement on its website, the RC&D is forming the RFN as a resource for small and mid-sized farms in the state to assist the farmers in accessing information and programs supporting climate resiliency and climate-smart practices.
The RFN can meet the need for technical expertise and tools required to address the increased pressures from climate change, such as more frequent, intense storms and unpredictable weather.
Plans are in the works for workshops, farm days and farm tours as well as one-on-one consultations about financial planning to help implement conservation practices.
The website indicates regenerative farming practices can help mitigate the pressures of increased costs for fuel, inputs and labor.
These practices are climate-smart as well as healthy for the soil.
Laura Tessieri, executive director of the NJRC&D, said her organization received 106 replies to solicitations of interest in regenerative farming and 81 farmers expressed interest in the approach.
The farms range from tiny to more than 1,200 acres, she said, totaling 10,307 acres.
The farmers who were interested have experience ranging from 2 months to 70 years.
About 30 percent qualify as members of a historically underserved community. Livestock farmers represented many of the respondents.
In answer to a survey question about the way meetings are held, Tessieri said most respondents want a hybrid format but many are willing to travel because they recognize the importance of networking.
Plenty of networking went on at the kickoff meeting as farmers sat at high tables around the main room of the winery, drinking coffee and tea and enjoying snacks, including cheeses and smoked meats from Bobolink Dairy and Bakehouse, as a German Shorthair Pointer named Louis made friends and begged for treats.
Bobolink and Duke Farms were co-sponsors of the event with Beneduce.
The farmers were asked to introduce themselves and talk about what regenerative farming can do for them. Samantha Loscalzo, an agricultural specialist with RC&D, took notes on the discussion to put together a blueprint for future meetings.
One table of women farmers included Reuwai Mount Hanawald of Terhune Orchards, an 11th generation farmer and Maria Stewart of Gorgeous Goats who started in farming fairly recently.
She does forest management, assisted by her goats who browse the understory which has increased by the number of ash trees that have died providing more sunshine on the forest floor.
Stewart is looking for a way to increase native species.
Hanawald is concerned with cover cropping, managing old growth, crop rotation and soil testing. She also has a problem with invasive species.
Neither farm can become organic. “Terhune Orchards have done many experiments with organic,” Hannawald said, adding “The researchers love to come and count the bugs on our fruit.” The vegetable gardens are organic, however.
“Our common ground is soil,” Hanawald said.
Soil is Common Ground
Davin Cornia, executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association-NJ, said regenerative farming is gaining momentum.
He also said it can be a marketing advantage for some farmers, especially early adopters.
Farmers at other tables talked about renewable energy, permaculture, training for future farmers and internships.
Meredith Melendez of Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Mercer County said there needs to be clarity about regenerative farming. She said the term comes up a lot but not always with definitions.
Tessieri said this is just the beginning.
She said the next event will be a financial planning for conservation practices workshop with Keith Dickinson of Farm Credit East in January or February.
Tessieri is recruiting farmers to be part of the steering committee and enroll in Regional Leadership Training. She will post updates on the RC&D website.